The Marriage of Figaro at the ENO review *****

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The Marriage of Figaro

English National Opera, 12th April 2018

It isn’t easy to think of a better opera than the Marriage of Figaro. And, as we culture vultures know, when opera works there is scarcely any entertainment to match it. It is just a shame that opera so rarely all comes together. It did here though making a perfect treat for BUD, and myself, as we continue to advance the young fella’s cultural education. One more Mozart to go, Cosi fan tutte, maybe the ROH revival next year, Britten now opening up, chuck in some Janacek after that and I’ll find a contemporary candidate which won’t scare him off.

It will be hard to match this though. Figaro may be the least daft and offensive of the classic Mozart operas but it still takes a wily director to render the sexual politics and dissection of class conflict entirely palatable to my modern eyes. Fiona Shaw certainly does this in her production, revived here for the second time with Peter Relton doing the honours. When I have something meaty to chew on in terms of message, to add to the comedy, and, of course, that divine, (might as well trot out the cliches), music, then there is nothing to do but sit back and enjoy. Singers who can act, constant movement through an imaginative. labyrinthine set from Peter McKintosh which intrigues and illuminates (and revolves, a lot!), and a concept which doesn’t overwhelm the story, but points up its darkest elements and is true to the Sevillian setting.

Now there is no doubt an army of opera bores who can tell me how much better it would be with top drawer international stars or a big name maestro in the pit. Piffle I say. What I like is an ensemble who can create a drama, rather than stepping off the plane, plonking themselves centre stage, screeching and then milking the applause. I was also more than satisfied with young Matthew Kofi Waldren’s handling of the ever exact ENO Orchestra. MKW is assistant to Martyn Brabbins and, in this uncluttered performance, was a more than capable deputy.

Even a musical numbnut like the Tourist can hear that Lucy Crowe, now graduated to the role of Countess, possesses a voice of exquisite power once she gets in the groove. When she comes in with that first aria hairs on backs of necks collectively stood on ends. Even when conspiring with Susanna to get back at the cocksure Count there was a tinge of heartache stiffened with revenge in her demeanour. Ashley Riches’s Count may not match her singing but he shows us a brutally direct aristo who is more confused than contrite when he gets his comeuppance. Thomas Oliemans may not be the most savvy of Figaros but he is perky enough. Rhian Lois as Susanna was the stand out for me though, as good as actor as I have seen on any stage, with a voice that needed no sur-titling. Katie Coventry’s Cherubino wasn’t annoying – that’s rare praise in my book.

Best of all though is getting to hear Jeremy Sams’s English translation of Da Ponte’s libretto in turn based on Beaumarchais’s play. The originals are exemplars of energy, suppleness and wit. Mr Sams’s verse matches them. It is often laugh out loud funny but still doesn’t blunt the sharper edges that puncture the mistaken identity and cupboard-hiding bromides. This is a comedy of cruelty not romance, as the Picasso-like bull skulls, (and minotaur allusions), the weapons, the confrontations, the barbs, the contracts, the tantrums, remind us. The cast, like the characters, relished turning the screw on each other. Remember this is a story where one woman (Marcellina) wouldn’t hesitate to use the law to catch her man (Figaro), a young boy (Cherubino) can’t keep his c*ck in his britches, the Countess agrees to feign adultery, she and her own fiance pimp out Susanna to the Count, a marriage (Marcellina and Bartolo) is agreed to legitimise an illegitimate child, Figaro is prepared to beat up his fiance on the basis of a lost pin and a bunch of blokes lurk beyond trees to watch the Count getting it on with Susanna. Nice eh.

The droit du seigneur that the Count will not relinquish may be the dramatic crux, but there is much more to Mozart/da Ponte’s plot, (even when it is shorn of the revolutionary monologue from Figaro berating the Count to be found in Beaumarchais). Fiona Shaw draws this out in ways that other, more frivolous, productions do not. Having the Countess walk out at the finale made sense. Men in positions of power haven’t changed much it seems so need to be reminded why then they are being w*nkers.

So a wonderful production of a wonderful opera. Don’t just take my word for it. Ask BUD.

 

 

Bryce Dessner and the London Contemporary Orchestra Soloists at Queen Elizabeth Hall review ***

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London Contemporary Orchestra Soloists, Galya Bisengalieva (violin), Rakhi Singh (violin), Robert Ames (viola), Oliver Coates (cello) – Bryce Dessner (electric guitar)

Queen Elizabeth Hall. 10th April 2018

  • Bryce Dessner – Aheym for string quartet
  • Mica Levi – You belong to me for string quartet
  • Steve Reich – Electric Counterpoint for electric guitar and tape
  • Steve Reich – Different trains for string quartet and tape (with film from Bill Morrison)

I am pretty sure the last time I was in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was with a young BD and LD and the SO to see Slava’s Snow Show as a “Christmas Treat”. The SO booked the entertainment without, as is her wont, looking too closely at the details. Which is a shame as she has an aversion to clowns. Not a full blown psychic horror but enough to engender a vague sense of unease. Which is unfortunate as, for those that don’t know, Slava’s Snow Show involves clowns. A lot of clowns. On a journey. In Russian. Being the supportive family that we are we found the SO’s discomfort funnier that the show. We still do.

This was my first visit to the newly refurbished QEH and I can report an already handsome building is now even better looking. It looks like it will pursue a course of adventurous programming, which is marvellous, though I can’t pretend it is all to my taste.

This concert was though. Arse that I am I hadn’t recorded the details correctly in my foolproof diary system so I hadn’t realised Different Trains was on the menu and had no idea the evening would be graced by the presence of Mr Bryce Dessner. Now I am guessing this was in stark contrast to most of the audience, for whom, I assume, he was the main attraction. I do not know if the punters that can now be counted on to fill a hall showcasing minimalist classics have always been there, or whether they are new to the genre, but it doesn’t matter. The whole of arty. trendy, creative London turns up in droves now, (though not so much at venues without the social media presence of the Southbank)., which leaves me looking and feeling even more conscious of my shocking lack of style.

(Where did it all go wrong? I used to be a contender in the sartorial stakes and could oft be found propping up the bar at cutting edge London venues. Honestly. No longer. Now even the pensioner tribe at midweek theatrical matinees looks down on me. That it should come to this. Mind you, it’s all my fault. This too stolid flesh needs melting).

All this crossing of musical boundaries is immensely energising though, and, in some ways, it was minimalism that first brought together the the “high” art of classical music with the “popular” art of rock and pop. I would also contend that if it hadn’t been for “classical” composers in the 1950s and 1960s exploring what technology and music from other cultures had to offer, dance music would be much the poorer.

Anyway our man Mr Dessner stands astride the divide, as it were, with his well regarded minimal classical works and his day, or night, job as guitarist for The National. Now, as it happens, I like The National. No expert but I have a few of their albums and saw them support that dreadful old rocker Neil Young a few years ago in Hyde Park. Obviously I don’t mean Neil Young is dreadful. he is akin to a god in my eyes. What I can say though is that The National, along with the likes of Beach House, Death Grips, Eels, John Grant, The Knife, Metronomy and TV on the Radio, ensure that the non-classical section of my CD collection, (I know CDs, ho-ho-ho grandad), isn’t entirely made up of artists who are either older than me or dead. I also appreciate that this is hardly evidence of cutting edge musical taste, and is very white, but, I fear, so is your correspondent. And it also doesn’t mean that as far as I am concerned the best music made in the last few years has come from The Fall, (sadly no longer, why are we not still in a period of national mourning?) and Wire. Worse still, whilst writing this I am listening to Soft Machine. Could it be any worse?

Unsurprisingly Mr Dessner was terrific. I listened to Aheym for string quartet a couple of times before this and it is a worthy and apposite work to set alongside Steve Reich’s string quartet masterpiece. Written in 2009, early on in his catalogue, the title is Yiddish for “homeward” and is inspired by his granny’s stories about Eastern Europe and coming to America. There is a five beat jagged chordal rhythm that runs through the piece which is cut up and syncopated in various ways until a short solo cello line, with pizzicato breaks, takes us to a slower, murky fugal passage, above the cello rocking. This is repeated in a different way before the rhythm returns, with col legno bowing, some scratchy stuff, some very high harmonics and a bit of double stopping to round things off. It is not structurally complex but it is very arresting and every string effect on show was “enhanced” by the close microphones. I loved it though I don’t suppose it will pop up at the Wigmore any time soon.

Mica Levi’s work, written in 2016 for this very ensemble, takes the 1950s song of the title and zeroes in on scraps of music within it. There are three sections to be played in any order. Hannah, a kind of set of passacaglia variations with mad trilling, Jumping, sort of fugal with odd chords moving to tremolos over a cello grind, and Sun, with the higher strings sliding up over the cello drone. It is less interesting than it sounds. Again it was over-amplified for my liking.

Ahed of the interval and before the main event Mr Dessner took to the stage with electric guitar for a performance of Electric Counterpoint. No rock’n’roll razzamatazz here. He looked like one of the stage managers despite having taking a bow earlier after Aheym. EC has one live guitar part, obviously, alongside twelve recorded guitar parts, two on bass. There are three movements, without breaks, the first an 8 part canon with the live guitar over the top and harmonic pulse from the other recorded guitars, the slow movement is similar but with 9 parts and, er, a slower theme, and the final part, again a canon, but with more tonal variation and rhythmic change. It is pure Reich and here the QEH acoustic, the amplification and, obviously, our rock god, really delivered.

Different Trains, commissioned, like Aheym, by the Kronos Quartet, and premiered in this very venue in 1988, is way more interesting than it sounds. The live string quartet is backed by three recorded versions of themselves. This creates the opportunity for 16 part counterpoint and, in line with the concept of the piece, means we listen to a “past we did not witness”. The tape line also includes lines of speech, from Reich’s governess and a train porter, as well as Holocaust victims, as well as “train” noises. The idea is to contrast Reich’s train journeys across America as a child with the horrific journeys made by Jewish children in Europe during the war. The accompanying film from Bill Morrison reinforces the contrast and is, at times, disturbing. The first movement is upbeat, the snatches of conversation brief, and the rhythmic patterns clear and harmonics tonal. The second second is slower and darker with frequent sustains, more harmonic dissonance, and with the train ambience increasing. The final movement takes the voices from the first time and melds them into the music.

I wasn’t entirely persuaded by the performance with the recordings sometimes overwhelming the live performers though I was perched right at the back. Oliver Coates’s cello playing was very fine, as I know from previous performances, and Galya Bisengalieva’s first violin sang, but the second violin and viola parts were a bit muddied. On the other hand having the film footage definitely enhanced the powerful meaning behind Steve’s Reich’s music. (I am assuming the age of the footage is what delivered the “blotchy effects”). The performers were standing and split two by two on stage which made for an antiphonal effect, in mind if not ear.

Even with the sound this was still a fine rendition of a modern masterpiece near Reich’s best. More of this at the QEH please. I promise to smarten up next time.

Oh, and no clowns please.

Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout at Wigmore Hall review ****

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Isabelle Faust (violin), Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord)

Wigmore Hall, 9th April 2018

  • JS Bach – Violin Sonatas 4, 5 and 2, BWV 1017, 1018 and 1015,
  • Johan Jacob Froberger Suite No 12 in C minor for harpsichord,
  • Biber – Violin Sonata No 5 in E minor, Mystery Sonatas Passacaglia in G minor “Guardian Angel”

JS Bach tick. Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber tick. Not just the Passacaglia from the Mystery Sonatas, which seems to appear on every Baroque violinists concert programmes right now, but one from the “other” 1681 set of sonatas. And then this chap Froberger which also turned into a qualified tick. All from the violin of Isabelle Faust, always a resounding tick, and harpsichord of Kristian Bezuidenhout, likewise.

This partnership has recently recorded the Bach Violin sonatas using some top draw instruments and the reviews are very positive. On the strength of this performance I have bought the CD. I am also signed up, in tandem with MSBD, for the second instalment of the other sonatas at St Luke’s on 16th June. I see there are a few tickets left. Snap ’em up I say.

The first couple of minutes of the opening Sonata No 4 weren’t perfect, harpsichord right hand just a bit forceful compared to left and the violin, but balance was quickly achieved and from there on we, and they, never looked back. These works are not right at the top of the Bach instrumental pile, crowded out by the solo works and the concertos and suites, but, IMHO, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be. And this sublime partnership is making that case convincingly. Son CPE certainly thought they were amongst Dad’s best works, They are not revolutionary in structure adhering to the familiar baroque sonata di chiesa pattern of four slow-fast-slow-fast movements, but they are some of the first to have a fully written out keyboard part rather than a bassline with some indications of harmonies to be filled in above it. This means the right hand can match the melodies of the violin whilst the left hand trots out the bassline. This gives the texture of a trio sonata which is most clearly heard in No 4.

No 4 kicks off with a lilting siciliano, follows with a three line fugue, then an adagio with triplets in the keyboard right hand alongside a dotted violin rhythm, then another fugue with some syncopation and cross-rhythms. No 5 starts with a largo where the violin gradually adds melody to the three part invention of the keyboard, unrelated at first and then conjoined, like a cantata aria apparently. The fast movements are fugues again, the second slow movement, arpeggios from keyboard with double stopping accompaniment from violin. No 2 is strictly 3 part, beginning with another gentle dance imitating the contemporary ‘galant” manner, followed by another fugue which sandwiches some flashy violin, then a canon, then another fugue. Now I confess I am not entirely sure what all this means but once I have recording in hand, or ear, I will try to work it out. That is the fun of art music; you know you like it, you can then spend years working out why you do and what it is.

Now apparently our man Froberger was the leading keyboard composer of the mid C17, born in Stuttgart, and working for 20 years as an organists for the Hapsburg emperors in gilded Vienna, though like all these chaps he got about a bit. Free movement across Europe you see. His compositions unite the Italian, German and French traditions, the French broken style still be based on lute technique (and a bit dull to my ears). This is one of his suites based on dances grouped by key, here C. It begins with an allemande in the form of a lament, then cheers up a bit with gigue, courante and sarabande. Still can’t quite remember the differences but this passed the time pleasantly enough. Seems JJ Froberger was a bit of a noodle forbidding publication of his compositions in his lifetime. The right to be forgotten, though now he must be a wet dream for Baroque keyboard scholars.

In contrast the Biber sonata was, yet again, a revelation. This is part of a set of 8, published in 1681, and is a barnstormer with extreme upper register shrills, very fast runs and bonkers double stopping. The work is continuous starting with a fantasia-like intro, then into an exquisite set of variations over a ground bass, then a show off presto and ending with another beautiful set of variations. Maybe this fellow isn’t quite up there with JSB and Vivaldi but he is in the vicinity and it’s a mystery to me why he isn’t more popular. A CD of this set of sonatas has literally just dropped through the letter box. I’m on it.

Biber didn’t tour much, despite his astounding technique, preferring to publish his ground breaking works for violinists and let the punters work it out for themselves. I like the sound of that. He spent most of his working life in Salzburg, after doing a runner from an employer in Bohemia. I suspect you would be hard pressed to find a bar of chocolate with his mug on it in Salzburg though unlike you know who. He married well and his surviving kids were musically gifted. In addition to the violin pieces apparently he also wrote plenty of large scale sacred music, though I haven’t seen any being performed, maybe they are a bit too labour intensive. I will find out and let you know.

Needless to say Ms Faust’s rendition of this sonata was electric, in atmosphere not technology of course. Biber may have been ahead of his time, until the Italians overtook him, but he wasn’t that advanced. I really hope she programmes more of these solo violin pieces in future and that some promoters will be brave enough to let one of the sublime baroque violinists performing today to have a crack at the Mystery Sonatas in full.

Beethoven and Shostakovich from the LSO at the Barbican review ****

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London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda, Nikolai Lugansky (piano)

Barbican Hall, 8th April 2018

  • Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op 58
  • Shostakovich  – Symphony No 8 in C minor, Op 65

I could be imagining it but the LSO seems to be notching up a gear, from its already high level, each time I hear it. You would never get to hear Shostakovich under Sir Simon Rattle’s baton but here we had one of their two Principal Guest Conductors, in the shape of the inestimable Gianandrea Noseda, tackling DSCH’s mighty gloom-fest No 8, and delivering as good a rendition as you are likely to hear. In recent years, if I wanted to hear convincing performances of DSCH symphonies I would probably look elsewhere, to the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski maybe, though the last time I heard them take on No 8, at the Proms in 2015, it wasn’t perfect.

It is all about nailing that epic first movement. I say movement but let’s be honest it is pretty much a symphony in itself. Weighing in at a few minutes short of half an hour, depending on tempi, it winds up, through marches, to an immense tutti, strings blazing, drums rolling, and most of the woodwind and brass involved, before subsiding back to the immense adagio recapitulation of the second theme, with woodwind solos, that DSCH excelled at and which seem to cross all 11 of Russia’s time zones. And, it the conductor and orchestra aren’t careful to establish the line, it can feel like several hours. The tunes themselves aren’t complicated, the key “fate” motif is laid out right at the start, before the two lyrical themes are developed, and it is the fate motif to which orchestra returns before the fabulous cor anglais solo. Time for the LSO’s Christine Pendrill to shine which she did. Her woodwind colleagues also get there time in the sun in the later movements, notably the picccolo of Patricia Moynihan, the bassoon of Rachel Gough and the bass clarinet of Renaud Guy-Rousseau.

Having come out the other end of this movement. DSCH then slaps you, first with one of his textbook sardonic, militarised marches, and then with a moto perpetuo with screams that reeks of the battlefield, (think planes buzzing overhead) and contains the second of the symphonies massive tutti climaxes. The following slow passacaglia movement reworks the fate motif through brass, strings and, memorably, into the bass, before we get some relief in the concluding C major rondo kicked off by the bassoon solo. Even here though we get a repeat of the howling tutti before bass clarinet takes us to some sort of rest with alternate pizzicato and sustaining high strings (the fate motif inverted). As in the first movement, this final allegretto has plenty of action for snare and bass drums and trumpet calls.

DSCH claimed the symphony was, overall, uplifting and life affirming, pointing to the brighter, dancey, folk rhythms in that finale. He must have been taking the p*ss, as so often, given the extreme violence and suffering which characterises the previous movements. This was written over 10 weeks in 1943. Those punters who were expecting a sequel to the story of patriotic resistance apparently laid out in its predecessor, the Leningrad, were sorely disappointed. The Nazis were on the back foot now in Russia but, in retrospect, Dmitry was never going to big up Stalin and the leadership for saving Mother Russia. Its ambiguities are barely concealed, and, when DSCH was once again pilloried for his pessimism in 1948, it was singled out for special criticism.

Yet, for me, all of these middle symphonies wrestle with the same dilemmas. They are just music, so we must be careful not to get sucked too far into the “what did DSCH really mean” cottage industry, but, if we accept that context had an impact then it seems right to believe, that these symphonies, warts and all, are warnings against the depths to which humanity can sink whatever the ideological backdrop. This is not a symphony to set alongside other C minor tragedy to triumph belters, Beethoven 5, Mahler 2, Bruckner 8, it is too brutal overall and the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t bright enough, even with the ocassional tender passages, but I do think it is DCSH’s best, alongside 5 and 10.

Mr Noseda and the LSO are engaged in recording a DSCH symphony cycle. Not sure if this will form part of it but it would be a fitting contribution, assuming the engineers master the Barbican sound. My benchmark recording, as it so often is, is from the maestro Haitink with the Concertgebouw. This performance matched it.

I am afraid I wasn’t as convinced by Nikolai Lugansky’s rendering of Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto. Mr Lugansky is highly regarded, seen as sympathetic to the music and unshowy, but he is keen on his tinkly rubato, whereas I like my Beethoven direct and muscular. This was too Romantic and insufficiently Classical if you take my meaning. Noseda and the LSO offered up a perfectly apposite support, especially in the strings, but yielded too much to the piano in the second movement, and especially, concluding in the rondo, so it all went a bit arpeggio crazy. Mr Lugansky encored with some Mendelssohn which didn’t help my mood

Still it’s Beethoven and it wasn’t that annoying. And given the quality of the Shostakovich it was a minor irritant. Gianandrea Noseda and the LSO tackle No 10 next. My favourite. Can’t wait.

 

 

 

Laura van der Heijden and Petr Limonov at Wigmore Hall review ***

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Laura van der Heijden (cello), Petr Limonov (piano)

Wigmore Hall, 2nd April 2018

  • Britten – Cello Sonata in C major, Op 65
  • Shostakovich – Cello Sonata in D minor Op 40

21st December 1960. Britten and Shostakovich are sharing a box at the Festival Hall. That’s right the two greatest composers of the twentieth century, well maybe the two greatest after a chap called Stravinsky, are both in a box listening to Mstislav Rostropovich playing Dmitri’s First Cello Concerto. I’d like to have been there. Anyway Mstislav persuades Britten to compose a sonata just for him a year later which, at this concert, is set alongside Shostakovich’s own contribution to the form, written in 1934, as he broke away from his early, modernist days, and, unlike his Cello Concertos, not dedicated to Mr Rostropovich.

The admiration and regard that BB and DSCH had for each other is well known but their musical connections, beyond the broad commitment to tonality, is not always clear. Despite the time between these two works I was struck by how this comparison of the two sonatas pointed up their similarities.

Britten begins with a Dialogo, an exchange of single notes and short phrases between the two instruments, which eventually  reveals two themes, a choppy, pleading line for cello and a soothing rise and fall for piano, developed and recapitulated. Next a jerky scherzo, with cello entirely pizzicato, which keeps running off over the horizon. It could be Bartok, or course, but it could have just as easily come from a mid period DSCH quartet. The central Elegia similarly could have seeped out of one of those interminable Largos in any DSCH symphony. Simple but hugely effective. As for the Marcia which follows, well you might be forgiven for thinking this is a parody of a DSCH parody, as the cello troops haphazardly wobble off in entirely the wrong direction thanks to the incompetent piano general, ending up in no man’s land. Then the final Moto Perpetuo, a classic Britten device, but again redolent of DSCH’s chamber scherzos, if a bit more inventive, with a big tutti flourish at the end.

And guess what. The Shostakovich sonata’s final movement incorporates a very similar moto perpetuo. Let’s not get ahead of ourself though. DSCH begins with a restrained opening, with a tiny bit of irritation, that parlays into about the most lyrical second theme you could imagine from this prickliest of composers. Hard to believe this was written at a time when wife Nina had left him for a bit after he confessed to an affair. (I have often wondered what scientist Nina saw in this acidic, direct, conflicted, alcoholic, man-child obsessive. Beyond his musical genius of course. Still the SO is still with the Tourist, without even the defence of talent, so no accounting for taste).

Anyway there is no evidence of DSCH’s rebellious youth or the cacaphonies that got him deep in the shit with Joe Stalin a couple of years later. (Though remember it took a couple of years before the Politburo woke up to the fact that Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District was seditious formalism. That’s the problem with authoritarian artistic taste. It’s a bit backward).

Halfway in to this monster first movement, just as we might be tiring of DSCH’s impression of Brahms, he hits us with something more rhythmic and darker with cello pizzicato and some plodding from piano, which keeps recurring.

In the second movement we are back to familiar territory with a scherzo in the form of a brisk, marchy waltz. In the middle some fancy cello glissando and legato melody from piano, before the two reverse. Vintage DSCH. The slow movement is also recognisably DSCH though with a recurring squeaky cello motif like someone pretending to cry. It’s odd hearing DSCH do a kind of faux-Romantic sadness in contrast to those immense journeys of genuine human suffering elsewhere in his work.

Back to D minor in the last movement, where a rondo is alternated with contrasting episodes including the aforementioned moto perpetuo for piano. It’s not heroic, but nor is it sarcastic in tone, and for me is one of DSCH’s finest chamber music moments. It’s inventiveness echoes ….. one Benjamin Britten.

So, with the exception maybe of parts of the first movement in the Shostakovich sonata, two very fine pieces of music. I have recordings of the BB by, natch, Mr Rostropovich and BB himself, and the Shostakovich, a cheapo Naxos by Dmitry Yablonsky and Ekaterina Saranceva. There are both excellent and I fear, quite a bit more involving than the performances of Laura van der Heijden and Petr Limonov. These were considered and accurate but I think I may have been spoilt by the recordings. Anyway, given these are not always at the top of the recital agenda, I highly recommend seeking them out when they do appear, especially when together.

 

 

 

 

Tallis Scholars at St Johns Smith Square review ****

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The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips (director)

St John’s Smith Square, 31st March 2018

Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611)

  • Surrexit pastor bonus
  • Vidi speciosam
  • Magnificat for double choir
  • Missa pro defunctis Requiem

Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599)

  • Tota pulchra es
  • Hei mihi, Domine

Alonso Lobo (1555 -1617)

  • Versa est in luctum

Having dipped a toe into Early and Renaissance vocal music the Tourist probably finds himself listening to more than the average man on the street to Christian devotional music and Latin texts. This despite him being an avowed atheist and useless at languages. There is next to no cognitive dissonance arising from this set of circumstance, however, but he can now see;

  1. how the C16 and earlier man/woman on the street might get taken in by all the mumbo-jumbo given the power and beauty of the music (and art) that the Church offered (remember there were precious little other aural or visual stimuli to be had – no Candy Crush or Instagram in those days) and,
  2. how pointless it was setting it in a language said man/woman couldn’t understand leaving the door open for the Reformation to shake up the Catholic Church.

It has taken a bit of time but the Tourist has finally discovered the work of one Tomas Luis de Victoria thanks to the influence of some wise teachers. Snapped up a 10 CD disc by Ensemble Plus Ultra, a Gramophone Award Winner, for a bargain £30 after facing off the Amazon machine. I will likely die before I ever really get to grips with this music, (as for so much else), but there will be so much pleasure in the journey. Ensemble Plus Ultra are another in the long line of British early music vocal ensembles who, I expect, will have been inspired by the original wave of scholars and performers from the 1960s and 1970s, including our director for this evening, Peter Phillips, one of the grandaddies of the whole movement.

Now TVic was a big noise in C17 Spain, and along with Palestrina, based in Rome, and Orlando di Lasso, born in Mons in present day Belgium, but who worked all over Europe, was a major force in the Counter-Reformation when the Catholic church bit back. TVic was a performer and, helpfully, a priest but thankfully for us focussed on churning out compositions rather than taking confessions. I gather a fair bit is known about him, he worked in Rome for a spell before Philip II of Spain, the most important bloke in the world then with Spain at the height of its power, gave him the job of Chaplain to his sister, the Dowager Empress Maria in Madrid. This was Spain’s artistic Golden Age and these composers were a proud part of it.

I defy you note to be immediately drawn in by TVic’s grooves. The music is much more direct and “churchy”, with more affective melodies, than some of his European peers and predecessors. He is the master of manipulating, dividing and receding choirs. The polyphony is less complex than, say, Palestrina with more homophony, (everyone belting out the same text), but he creates some surprising textures and dissonances and a lot of melodic contrasts. He wasn’t averse to a bit of word-painting even though he only ever wrote sacred music.

The Surrexit pastor bonus is an Easter motet which is typical of TVic’s style, set for six voices which he combines in all manner of ways in just 3 minutes. It kicks off with dramatic soprano and the higher registers swirl around the lower basses. The Vidi speciosam is similarly scored and uses a popular Old Testament setting, (which also formed the basis for a TVic Mass). It starts off in a fairly restrained way but gradually builds out so that at times it feels like the whole of Wembley Stadium is in the room. TVic churned out 18 versions of the Magnificat but this one, Primi Toni, for two four part choirs, is entirely polyphonic with no plainchant intervals, though it is easy to hear the chant it comes from. There are a fair few effects along the way.

Francisco Guerrero was born and died in Seville, and spent most of his working life in Spain, but when he did venture abroad he packed a lot in, what with being attacked by pirates twice when coming back from the Holy Land, and landing up in debtor’s prison. Unlike TVic he wrote secular pieces in addition to motets and masses, though he also kept it homophonic and had a flair for drama. The first motet here, Toto pulchra es, is drawn from the same source as the Vidi speciosam and is similarly an paean of praise to the Virgin Mary, who was guaranteed to work the church fellas up into a right lather at that time. The second piece, Hei mihi, Domine is rather different with sharp contrasts and syncopated rhythms conjuring up a more impassioned plea for mercy in this Matins for the Dead.

Alonso Lobo was Guerrero’s sidekick at Seville Cathedral and took over when the old boy went walkabout. This chart-topping motet, Versa est in luctum, was written for Philip II’s funeral, and it shows with full-on “oh woe is us” grief-stricken passages from the book of Job apparently. It is his best known number. He had a spell in Toledo, (a city everyone must go to once in their life), and, in his life, was rated equally with TVic and Palestrina.

The meat of the concert was TVic’s Mass written on the death of his beloved employer Dowager Empress Maria. There are a fair few TVic masses, and I have only just started to get to grips with them, but if you need somewhere to start this might be it. TVic had 16 voices at his disposal when writing the piece and he took full advantage with six parts. It is a Mass for the Dead, a Requiem, based on the ancient plainchant melody, which becomes an immense structure in TVic’s hands. He also throws in a Versa est in luctum a la the Lobo motet and a lesson, Taedet animam meam, to serve up a near 50 minute funeral celebration for that is how it feels in spite of the subject. Old Dowager Maria may have shuffled off this mortal coil but in the afterlife she had loads to look forward to based on this music.

Obviously the Tallis Scholars under PP were perfect. They create a big sound but you are always aware of where the music comes from and what its point is and there’s no fancy grandstanding. It is hard sometimes in these concerts not to give in completely to the wall of sound and float off, but the Scholars in tandem with the composers, especially TVic provide enough contrast and drama to bring you back inside the music, its structure and its story.

Rachel Podger and VOCES8 at Kings Place review ****

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Rachel Podger, VOCES8 – A Guardian Angel

Kings Place, 28th March 2018

  • Orlando Gibbons – Drop, drop slow tears
  • Plainchant – Pater Noster
  • Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber – Rosary Sonata No 16 Passacaglia “A Guardian Angel”
  • Jonathan Dove – into thy hands
  • Nicola Matteis – Passaggio rotto, Fantasia, Movimento incognito (from Other Ayrs, Preludes, Allemandes, Sarabandes
  • Mendelssohn – Denn er hat seinen engeln befohlen uber dir
  • Rachmaninov – Bogoroditse Dyevo
  • Tallis – O nata lux
  • James Macmillan – Domine non secundum peccata nostra
  • Thomas Tomkins – When David heard
  • Bach – Partita for flute in A minor BWV 1013
  • Monteverdi – Adoramus te. Christe
  • Orlando Gibbons – Hosanna to the Son of David
  • Giovanni Gabrielli – Angelus Domini descendit
  • Owain Park – Antiphon for the Angels

Blimey. It took almost as long to write out the programme as to listen to some of these pieces.

What do we have here then? Well the undisputed queen of the Baroque violin, (OK maybe not given Isabelle Faust, Monica Huggett, Elizabeth Wallfisch and no doubt a few more I don’t know), has teamed up with the English vocal group VOCES8 to create a programme of violin and vocal works from across the ages all themed around “A Guardian Angel”. Some of these pieces appear on Ms Podger’s 2013 CD of the same name. Rachel Podger creates a big, clear sound with vigorous rhythm which makes it a joy to follow the line of the music. Yet when virtuosity is required, (not so much on this evening), she doesn’t hold back.

Angels being angels in Christian religion they turn up a fair bit in music notably Renaissance, Baroque and the modern composers who seek inspiration from their forbears. Here we have pieces for solo violin, (or flute transposed for violin in the case of the Bach sonata which formed the backbone to the second half), for choir alone and for a combination of the two. Angels watching over you is obviously anathema to my carefully constructed rationalist self-image though maybe all this music and my penchant for early Renaissance art and architecture might cumulatively start to rub off. I was reminded of the world (other-world?) that Annie Baker explored in her latest play John (John at the National Theatre review *****).

The plainchant with the choir perched in the balcony was as meditative as you like and was followed by the Baroque violinists party piece de jour from Biber which seems to be following me around everywhere. It’s title provided the stepping off point for Ms Podger. If you don’t know it, and the genuinely ground-breaking Sonatas that precede it you should. It still sounds cutting edge today. It doesn’t skimp on the bass notes which is probably when it floats my boat. Ms Podger’s recording is the best place to start.

I can take or leave the Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov and Dove pieces though VOCES8 were more convincing than I expected, the Matteis violin extracts were immediately invigorating in that typical Italian baroque way and the MacMillan piece was as spare (echoes of Part) as you might expect from this committed composer. The Tallis was my favourite with Ms Podger’s violin taking the highest line as the Jesus to the choir’s Elijah and Moses and alongside Andrea Halsey’s spellbinding soprano. Her voice is about as good as you will ever hear (says some-one who knows absolutely nothing about singing!!).

The biggest surprise of all was the Thomas Tomkins. New to me, I will need to seek this out. The Bach was obviously wonderful, Ms Podger has made this her own and proved that it could as easily been scored for violin as flute. The Monteverdi, Gibbons and Gabrielli pieces were relatively short but very welcome. Owain Park’s new work was commissioned especially for this collaboration and amalgamates texts by St Ambrose and Hildegard von Bingen sticking to the angel theme. Like so many commissions for choirs it is immediately attractive, it is a real thrill hearing accessible music for the fisr time.

Throughout the concert we had well constructed antiphonal exchanges between violinist and pure toned choir which brought out the best of the exceptional acoustic at Hall One of Kings Place. No clapping between the pieces, a rapt audience, (no phone glows as far as I could see), and discreet but appropriate lighting all combined to maintain the magic.

I can’t pretend I understand the music that was put in front of me. I can’t read music and I am steadfastly failing to learn its language. If you are like me, and I reckon there are a lot of you who are, (obviously I say this in full knowledge of the fact that no-one reads this), then I cannot recommend the combination of Early and/or Baroque music and voices highly enough. Food for brain, heart and soul (not that there is one, but like I say earlier, faith may yet surprise me).